Movie Review: The Glass Castle

Having read the novel when it was first published in 2005, I thought I was prepared for the family dysfunction. Instead, I found myself alternating between anger and horror as I watched two “parents”—brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts—abuse their four children.

Hours later, I’m still enraged by the cruelty and neglect: A father throwing his daughter into a pool over and over again, trying to teach her how to swim. A mother who won’t stop painting long enough to prepare lunch. A toddler lighting herself on fire after offering to cook wieners on the stove. Not surprising the children would want to leave this toxic environment.

Told from the perspective of second-born daughter Jeannette Watts, the film spans a 25-year period. Brie Larson stars as the adult Jeannette, a successful New York City gossip columnist, who is engaged to a financial advisor (Max Greenfield). Estranged from her parents, Jeannette cringes when she sees them garbage picking on the streets of Manhattan.

During the flashbacks, scene after scene shows the family traveling from town to town, state to state, attempting to outrun bill collectors and/or police constables. When Dad is sober, he is articulate and loving, teaching his children about science and architecture while working on a blueprint for a glass castle. As a mean, spiteful drunk, he spends the food money on alcohol, abandons his family for hours on end, and pimps his daughter.

Mom is an enabler, content to spend her days painting while ignoring her children’s needs. When Jeannette urges her to leave, she simply shrugs and follows her husband’s lead. Both parents try to pass off their miserable existence as a grand adventure.

I wore my “teacher” hat throughout most of the movie, hoping that a responsible adult would step in and rescue the children. But the cagey parents were good—too good—at keeping the family dysfunction a secret and outrunning any concerned bystanders.

I would have liked to have heard more from the other three siblings and seen more of the strong father-daughter connection described in the novel. In a recent interview, Jeannette Walls commented: “When times got really tough, Dad used to pull out the blueprints. He never did build us a big, fancy house, but I’ve come to realize that he gave me something much more valuable. And that is hope and a dream for the future. If a parent gives you that, then you’re lucky.”

Definitely worth seeing…I wouldn’t be too surprised if Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson receive Oscar nominations for their outstanding performances.


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Movie Review: The Big Sick

A different kind of romantic comedy, The Big Sick follows the courtship between a Pakistani comic (Kumail Nanjiani) and a graduate student (Zoe Kazan). Their one-night stand blossoms into a relationship that complicates Kumail’s life. Having chosen an unusual career direction, he doesn’t wish to further upset his traditional Muslim parents, who are busy arranging a suitable marriage for him. After discovering Kumail’s box of brides, Emily objects to being treated as a guilty secret and ends the relationship.

The trajectory of their lives changes when Emily comes down with a mysterious infection that leaves her in a medically-induced coma. At first hesitant, Kumail joins Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), at the hospital.

With Emily “asleep,” the focus of the movie switches to the relationships between Kumail and both sets of parents. Beth and Terry slowly warm up to Kumail while tensions mount with Kumail’s ebullient father (Anupam Kher) and his controlling mother (Adheel Akhtar).

The four supporting characters deliver strong performances, infusing humor into the storyline. Holly Hunter could easily garner an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

From the start, we know there will be a happily-ever-after. This romantic comedy is based on the real-life relationship between the co-writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. As photos of Kumail and the real Emily flashed over the closing credits, I found myself wondering about the inter-generational relationships. When did Kumail’s parents stop “ghosting” him and accepting Emily? Is a sequel in the works?

Hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, The Big Sick is a film worth seeing.


Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron boldly portrays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level spy for MI6, in an action-thriller that takes place in Berlin, on the eve of the Wall’s collapse in 1989. Her distinctive look—white-blonde hair, sleek outfits, fishnets, thigh-high boots, stilettos—and the ‘80s Europop soundtrack (99 Luftballoons, David Bowie, Der Kommissar) bring back memories of that eventful period in recent history.

From start to finish, the action never lets up as spies descend upon Berlin, determined to find an elusive list that could jeopardize the West’s entire intelligence operation. With all the single, double, and triple crosses, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the actual villain. And the dialogue is limited. But one constant prevails as Theron aims her gun, crunches bones, and punches faces: she is relentless and will not fail…a female James Bond.

While Theron dominates the film, the supporting cast of James McAvoy (Berlin station chief), John Goodman (CIA executive), and Sofia Boutella (French operative) add elements of intrigue and humor.

If you like action movies with brazen female protagonists and show-stopping fight scenes, you will enjoy Atomic Blonde.


Movie Review: A United Kingdom

A piece of untold history, beautifully presented by Director Amma Asante.

In 1947, Seretse Khama, the King of Bechuanaland (David Oyelowo) fell in love with Ruth Williams, a white office worker (Rosamund Pike). In the film, the chemistry is undeniable, but their respective families, along with the British and South African governments, challenge the union.

On the brink of launching apartheid, South Africa could not accept the idea of a mixed-race couple ruling the country to the north. The British feared they would be denied access to South Africa uranium and gold. And the risk of a South African invasion of Bechuanaland was a very real threat.

Despite the daunting opposition and scandalous headlines, Seretse and Ruth marry and travel to Bechuanaland. There, they encounter opposition from Seretse’s uncle and other members of the tribe who struggle to accept a white queen. “Do not belittle your kingdom,” warns the uncle. A skeptical woman asks Ruth: “Do you understand what ‘Mother of our Nation’ means?”

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike deliver Oscar-worthy performances. Oyelowo’s oratorical skills command our attention, while Pike captures the essence of a woman who is confident in her love and commitment, despite the insurmountable odds.

It is not surprising that Nelson Mandela once described the legacy of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams as “a shining beacon of light and inspiration.”

A must-see film that has relevance in our contemporary world.

Note: Bechuanaland is now Botswana.


Movie Review: Beatriz at Dinner

The film begins on a melancholy note.

Beatriz (played by Salma Hayek) is a holistic healer and masseuse, who lives a quiet life in California, surrounded by her pets and appreciative clients. But not all is well in her world. An adolescent client is dying, and a neighbor has cruelly strangled her pet goat.

Feeling out of sorts, Beatriz heads out to an affluent neighborhood to provide a massage for Cathy (Connie Britton). When Beatriz’s car breaks down, leaving her stranded for several hours, she reluctantly accepts a dinner party invitation from Cathy.

One of the guests, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) mistakes Beatriz for a maid. The evening goes downhill from there. The belligerent billionaire dominates the conversation, boasting about his business acumen and game hunting, while the other wealthy guests curry his favor.

Having consumed more wine than usual, Beatriz shares her more liberal beliefs and engages in debate with Doug. A tense, uncomfortable mood envelopes the group and Beatriz eventually leaves the table. To everyone’s shock and disappointment, she later returns to sing.

At that point, I would have expected a more dramatic turn of events. Instead, the film veers in an unusual direction and then ends abruptly…too abruptly after only eighty-three minutes. Unsettled, I left the theater with many unanswered questions about Beatriz, her relationships, and her state of mind.


Movie Review: Megan Leavey

I sat spellbound, eyes glued to the big screen and watched as the title character (brilliantly played by Kate Mara) transformed from restless young woman to Marine Corporal to war hero.

But the path was far from linear.

After escaping from a humdrum, small-town life in Valley Cottage, New York, Megan Leavey finds herself undergoing grueling training at Camp Pendleton. As punishment for a lapse in judgment, she is assigned kennel-cleaning duty for bomb-sniffing dogs. There, she encounters Rex, an unpredictable, aggressive German Shepherd, who bites the hand of an officer, shattering it in six places.

Initially terrified, Megan heeds the advice of her superior (Common) and fellow handler (Tom Felton) and learns how to project confidence and compassion when dealing with Rex. Megan and Rex form a deep bond that is strengthened in combat and later cemented in retirement.

The war scenes in Iraq include several tense and violent moments when IEDs explode and local establishments are searched. Megan and Rex are injured during a mission, and an officer dies while deployed. While I found these scenes difficult to watch, they did succeed in capturing the horror of the Iraq war. Later scenes provide insight into the frightening and lingering effects of PTSD.

Edie Falco delivers a strong performance as Megan’s shrill, unsupportive mother while Bradley Whitford plays a more compassionate father. Fellow Marine Matt Morales (played by Ramón Rodrigez) appears in several scenes as Megan’s love interest. But the love affair is short-lived…Megan’s true love is Rex.

I would have liked more specifics about the small-town hell that Megan was so desperate to escape. A few quick scenes glossed over a strained relationship with Mom and Megan’s poor people skills, leaving several gaping holes.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness. Remember to bring tissue!


Movie Review: Rough Night

Co-writers Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs have pushed the boundaries of questionable behavior in this R-rated comedy that has been described as the bastard child of Bridesmaids and The Hangover.

Or in some circles as the first post-Hillary movie.

Scarlett Johansson stars as bride-to-be Jessica, a budding politician running for State Senate. Her posse includes over-the-top kindergarten teacher Alice (Jillian Bell), activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer), wealthy divorcee Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Aussie flower child Pippa (Kate McKinnon).

The women meet in Miami for a weekend bachelorette party that has been meticulously organized—everything from baskets of “favors” to tequila shots to cocaine to a male stripper. Standard party girl fare until Alice accidentally kills the stripper and sets in motion a series of wacky scenes.

After quick deliberation—Jess can’t compromise her political career, Frankie can’t risk a third offense on her record, Blair can’t put her custody battle at risk—the women decide to dispose of the body instead of calling the police.

As the women plot and execute different disposal strategies, they must also deal with old rivalries and grudges that have festered for the past decade. To further complicate matters, aging neighborhood swingers (Demi Moore and Ty Burrell) hover and put the moves on Blair.

Frantic with worry, fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs) decides to drive down to Miami, cranked on expired uppers and clad in adult diapers.

Definitely a manic pace but with great chemistry and not-so-subtle hints of dark humor.